The first destination for Iranians who leave their country for Europe is Turkey. Most of them pass through the Khoy or Maku borders and arrive in Turkish villages. There they spend some time in the homes of human traffickers, eating at their tables until they are able to reach the city of Van.
Almost everyone warned me about traveling to this city, but I had to see it for myself and so made the trip from Istanbul. On entering Van, the first sign one sees states: “Iran, turn right.”
As soon as I set foot in the city, I met with a human rights activist who left Iran 12 years ago and who is still awaiting an answer from the UN about his asylum claim. He, like many other activists and journalists, now works together with traffickers to help political activists in Iran escape the country. Many immigrants who work for the human trafficking mafia do so for financial reasons.
My host first invited me to rest for a few hours in order to shake off my sleep deprivation, and then we headed off to meet with traffickers and other immigrants in the city.
Van is a city that feels very much like Iran. You can see Persian signs everywhere, and hear Persian being spoken in the streets. Iranians here are either tourists, or are being questioned by the police regarding the issue of valid documents. I see one Iranian looking for a currency exchange store and another traveler waiting in a corner with his backpack on, ready to go. In this gray and smoky city, which in parts seems to resemble Tehran, there’s an alley called “Chatriha” (Umbrellas). If one looks up, he or she can see hundreds of colorful umbrellas hanging between the two walls of the alley, as though they are telling the colorful dreams of every immigrant who lives, with their trafficker, in this alley.
Chatriha Alley and a Meeting with Human Traffickers
The cafés on both sides of the street are full of people drinking tea and having loud conversations. My host showed me around and, every now and then, he would use his head to point to one man or another, indicating that the men were human traffickers. We entered one of these cafés and saw two locals chatting with two “fresh off the boat” Iranian immigrants. I explained to them that I’m a journalist and it would be great if they could take me along with the clients to the border and show me the way. The two locals — cousins both in the business of human trafficking — looked at each other and laughed.
I asked them about the horrifying stories that immigrants tell. There are stories of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers in the city, The Guards unquestionably have a strong, noticeable presence in Van and have for some time. The cousins told me they had seen them in the city too. Asylum seekers and activists who live in Van also told me that they saw Revolutionary Guards officers many times in the villages around the border, and that the officers who travel in official IRGC vehicles in Turkish territories often terrorize refugees. All the refugees and traffickers I spoke with were terrified by the Guards, and the city has become notoriously dangerous because of the the corps' presence — Iranian refugees elsewhere in Turkey talk about how dangerous Van is and I was warned more than once about these dangers.
Lieutenant Fariborz Karimizand’s Journey to Van
Among these stories of immigrants, there are stories about the deal between human traffickers and the Iranian government, whereby specific clients are allegedly turned in for money or other benefits. There are stories of political activists being detained in a smuggler’s home so that the smuggler can hand them back over to the Iranian government. Some of these people were able to escape through a window, or in some other way, but many were not so lucky. When I returned to Paris, one of the traffickers continued calling me on my cell phone all the time. When I brought this up with my host in Van, he advised me not to answer, saying, “He [the trafficker] went back to Iran and probably wants to record your voice and video you so he can turn you in next time you come back.”
The cousin-traffickers also confirmed the rumor that some traffickers make deals with Iran to hand over political activists. When I asked about the fees people pay them, they told me the rate differs for each nationality. Iranians have to pay more than Pakistanis and Afghans and, if they are in an emergency situation and need to leave the country fast, the rate will be even higher.
After talking with the cousins, I met Lieutenant Fariborz Karimizand, who arrived in Van in September 2018. He left his job as a police officer in Iran and came to Turkey with the help of traffickers. I met him in a café in the alley.
My host had already shown me a photograph of him, along with the news of his escape.“I, Lieutenant Fariborz Karimizand, left Tehran’s police force because of their brutal suppression of civic protests of Iranian citizens,” he had posted on social media. “I was an intelligence officer at Tehran’s police force and left the country a few days ago and now live in disguise. Since I refused to be a part of their suppression machine, the intelligence agencies put me under pressure and I had no choice but to leave the country.”
Karimizand is a tall, fit man with big eyes and a smiling face. He sat in front of me, but did not drink or eat anything. I was all ears. He started with his escape. Apparently, during the last street protests in Tehran, Karimizand was tasked with identifying the protests’ leaders. He refused, and eventually got into trouble. “The Intelligence Protection Agency of the police was after me. I had to live in the shadows for a while and got a plane ticket for my family to leave the country first. Then it was my turn to leave, but illegally.” At that moment, he was safe in Van.
“I did not know any human traffickers, [and] could not find anyone either. I just knew I had to go to Khoy or Maku. So I went to Maku and stopped at a café. When you are clearly a stranger with a backpack on in these border cities, everyone knows the drill. Soon enough two traffickers approached me and we had a chat. I made a deal with the second one and he agreed to pass me through for US$1000. I found out later that, for Afghans, the rate for the same path was US$250.”
Karimizand waited at the café for two more hours. At 8pm his journey began and, after traveling on local dirt roads, they got to the first stop: a nomad’s tents with a strategic view over Iran’s border patrol stations.
“They were supposed to only take me on this trip, but as soon as we actually hit the road, I saw close to a hundred individuals from various nations next to me. There were seven or eight traffickers, each assigned to 10 to 15 clients, guiding all of us through mountainous trails. But when we got close to the border, there was only one of them left. When we reached the border, even that person disappeared, and we entered into a valley — which was a trap [laid down] by the Turkish army.”
There were 10 soldiers in front of them and 10 behind them. The soldiers shot into the air and ordered the travelers to surrender. Everyone was scared for his life; some were arrested and some escaped. Karimizand hid behind a cliff and waited for sunrise. Since he had military experience and survival skills, he managed to find his way to the border. “I’m originally from Kermanshah, so I know Kurdish. I talked with the locals on my way to Van, who were offering to take me to Istanbul or Greece. . . but I told them I was a guest in a nearby village and I didn’t need help. I knew they were after my money. But they did not care much for Iranians. They were mostly looking for Afghan or Pakistani targets since they don’t know the language and therefore easily get scammed. I got to one of the villages and found a human trafficker. I paid him US$125 to get me to Van. Now I just want to go to the US or Canada — the further away the better. This regime would do anything to get its revenge, they will definitely come after me.”
Corruption in the Police Force
Karimizand also told me about his time in Iran, and about his service as a security police officer for 10 years. Now, while seeking asylum, he is trying to expose the organization he used to work for and reveal what he described as the “corruption” within it. “Since 2018, they only wanted the police force to act as a suppression force of the regime. Even the Revolutionary Guards agents would put police uniforms on and hit the protesters near police stations so that people would think they were police officers. Lately, I couldn’t even tell people that I worked for the police; I was ashamed of it.”
He told me that prior to January 2018 he worked mainly behind a desk, but by the start of 2018, circumstances had changed. “In January they declared a crisis and everyone, even employees with disabilities, were summoned to get physically involved. At the time of crisis, you train the soldiers to be prepared to stand up against the riots. But I told my unit that they couldn’t get involved unless they had my direct order.”
According to Karimizand, there is a Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Protection agent based at every police station and with responsibility for monitoring police officers’ activities. Karimizand’s refusal to prepare his unit for the protesters was not lost on the agent, and he was summoned for questioning. Karimizand denied the accusations but was confronted with more questions: “‘Do you think these people are anti-revolution?’ asked the agent. I replied, ‘I don’t know, I’m a police officer not a politician.’ Then he presented me with some papers and asked me to sign and confirm that protesters are enemies of the Revolution. I didn’t.”
“Then the wiretaps and surveillance started, and they constantly changed my position. They even had a meeting to [discuss] sending me to Sistan and Baluchistan. Then they appointed me as the officer in charge of the arrests and ordered me to identify leaders of the protests and arrest them. They saw me fit for the position since I was in ‘good shape,’ but I refused and did not even leave the office when there were protests outside. After a little while, I was summoned to the military court for abandoning orders. When military personnel commit a crime, the situation and consequences are more serious. They only show us a ‘sneak peak’ of the summons letter and do not even hand it over.”
I asked Karimizand where he had been during the 2009 Green Movement. He took a deep breath and replied: “I was a student officer at the police academy and not officially in the force yet. But this time was not very different from 2009 either. I can confidently say that around 80 percent of the police personnel do not subscribe to the regime’s ideology, but their hands are tied by the security agencies.”
“As a police officer you only have two ways out: getting fired or resignation. Resignation is not that easy because they won’t confirm it; they argue they spent a lot of money on your education and training and you can’t just leave whenever you feel like it. So the only option is getting fired, and anyone who gets fired from the armed forces has no chance of getting employed by any other organization. Like everyone else, police officers are family men and, more than anything, they think of providing for their families. Therefore, they are terrified of getting fired. There are very few instances of resignation or people who were willing to get fired.”
A Moral Duty to Leave
The next few minutes passed by in silence while he stared at the floor. He then explained the charges he would face if he ever went back to Iran. “First, it was only abandoning the orders. But now I have also abandoned the force at the time of crisis, which is considered to be escaping while in service. In addition, now that I’m abroad and in communication with foreigners, I am a spy as well. So, if, let’s say, Judge Salavati is issuing the sentence, he would probably sentence me to death by execution.”
I asked him, now that he’s in Turkey, does he feel safe or does he still fear the agents of the Islamic Republic? “Of course I’m scared. But above all my fears I had a moral duty to leave. I could not obey a regime in which all its insiders have luxurious lives in Europe, but that provides its citizens with superstitious voodoo instead of medical care. They deploy Iranian youth to fight in Syria while their own children are partying in the best countries in the world. I couldn’t convince myself to get paid for suppressing my fellow citizens. I resigned, but they declined it. As a police officer you are a social worker. People might see a photo of a homeless person looking for food in trash cans, but I saw it with my own eyes every night I was on duty.”
Karimizand abandoned his job and lived secretly for a while without any public presence. Police personnel can be absent for two weeks, but as soon as the two weeks’ mark passed, the police contacted his friends and relatives.“The Islamic Republic could easily assassinate its enemies. One day you don’t see your buddy at work anymore and when you ask about him they tell you he has been relocated. And the answer to why he’s not answering his phone? ‘Oh . . . he changed his number.’ So, I felt that fleeing the country was my only option.”
Karimizand also talked about other instances of corruption in the police force. “In Tehran, Sarallah Headquarters is the ultimate commanding base. This is a maximum-security headquarters that insists on the physical elimination of enemies of the regime. Although police are higher in rank and responsibilities in comparison to Basij, because of their ties to the headquarters, Basij can easily get what they want by a phone call to headquarters, and can even change the laws in its favor. One day, after the 2017 election, some plainclothes Basijis organized a stop-and-search in one of Tehran’s main squares, causing a massive traffic jam. People called 911 and police officers were dispatched. When police officers got there and asked for Basijis’ permits, they produced no official paperwork and even started a fight with officers. Back-up units were dispatched and Basijs’ motorcycles were seized, with some Basijs being arrested. But a few days later, the chief commander of the armed forces, General Mohammad-Hussein Bagheri, demoted the sheriff and sent him to Sistan and Baluchistan. So not even the police officers can confront Basijis, as they know the consequences.”
Karimizand also referred to a cleric called Mullah Moravej, the Friday Prayers Imam of a small city east of Tehran. “He has established three charities without permits or [providing] information on how and where he spends the donations. Also, he faked a license plate on a van and repainted it black with the sign Gasht Ershad (“the moral police”), in which he detains young boys and girls without having jurisdiction. All his activities are illegal.”
I asked Karimizand if he worried whether people on the outside might label him as a spy and say he still worked for the regime. He smiled and replied: “A spy hides his identity. If I were a spy I would come [disguised] as a journalist. All the journalists working for the media in Iran and diplomats are spies. Now they even send Revolutionary Guards agents as journalists to events abroad. People can accuse me of spying, but my life is pretty much an open book. I have two little children and am looking for a job. If I was a spy, I would be financially secure. I see the Iranian police force as a patient with many diseases, first and foremost its brain, which is the commanders. But even its fingertips, which are officers like me, are infected with corruption.”
I asked him how he felt about abandoning everything and building a new life from zero. He stared at the floor again and was on the verge of tears. “It was hard on me . . . not to be able to help people out in police uniform. I liked my uniform . . . always kept it clean . . . I still go to sleep with [it on] . . .”
He could not continue, and tears covered his face. “I was one of the few who did not want to steal from people. But, like you, now I’m on a different path. Either we all go back to our country some day and live a free life, like other citizens of the world, or continue in our current path. Either way, it is better than our past.”
I later heard that Karimizand left Van and is now residing in Europe.